Valentine’s Day. I know what you’re thinking. Time to get a big box of lemons for your sweetheart.
Wait … what?
Winter is citrus season — this Valentine’s Day, why not give chocolate the night off and take advantage of the bright flavor and fragrance lemons, limes, grapefruits and the like can add to this special day’s dessert?
These fruits’ acidic nature, from pulp to rind, offers foods a particularly bright outlook in flavor; almost all food cultures across the globe prize some form of citrus for adding a pungent pop to foods, whether savory or sweet.
Citrus desserts have become particular favorites in American culture, from Key lime and lemon meringue pie to lemon icebox cake. One of my family’s favorites is also the easiest: Add one-half cup of lemon juice to a can of sweetened condensed milk, pour into a graham cracker crumb crust and refrigerate for an hour. Serve with a little whipped cream. Get creative and use tangerine, orange, yuzu or grapefruit instead of lemon juice.
Citrus growing in the warm climates of Florida, Texas and California propagated very quickly as part of the Columbian Exchange. Today, North America and Brazil are the largest citrus producers in the world. And while most of Florida’s fruits are used for juice, many varieties that may be unfamiliar to home cooks are making their way to grocers’ shelves (from Cara Cara oranges to pomelos). But even if you’re not in the mood to explore, ubiquitous offerings of navel oranges, tangerines and Persian limes are at their best right now.
KNOW YOUR CITRUS
Pucker up. Here’s a citrus primer on a few varieties beyond lemons and limes:
Meyer lemons were discovered by Frank Meyer (hence the name) in China; he brought the discovery — most likely a cross between a citron and a mandarin — to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. The fruit is smaller than a “regular” lemon, with a thinner skin that is almost orange. It’s prized by pastry chefs for its sweet, peppery flavor and high juice content. Most grocers will have these fruits on shelves from December through early March.
Yuzu is prized in Japan for its tart flavor and fragrant zest, and is used widely as a flavoring for soups, fish and vegetables. The fruit looks more like a tangerine than a lime, but the flavor lends itself more to the latter. In the States, it’s difficult to find fresh yuzu, but the juice is widely available at Asian markets.
Cara Cara navel oranges and blood oranges have similar-looking pink-to-deep-red flesh, but they are not the same citrus. Cara Cara, now widely available at grocers such as Whole Foods, Kroger and local outlets like the DeKalb Farmers Market, are medium-sized navels with pink-to-red flesh, thin skin and a bright, tangy flavor that hints of pepper and cranberry. Use it as a substitute for orange or lemon in recipes and reap the rewards. Blood oranges reach their peak from December through April or May, and are prized by the Italians (where they are grown most proliferate) in sorbetto, or eaten out of hand for their burgundy color and sweet flavor. They have become easier to find in the past few years at most grocery stores, but if you really want to try them and can’t find them, shop at Melissas.com.
Native to Southeast Asia, we have the giant pomelo to thank for many of our other citrus fruits in the Rutaceae family (think lemons and limes), as it is among the first citrus species (not a hybrid). The fruit looks like a very large grapefruit, but has a much thicker pith/rind, which is used widely in marmalades. It’s easy to find on most grocers’ produce shelves from December through March.
Oranges were spread throughout the Mediterranean by the Arabs, and then to the Americas as part of the Columbian Exchange. Varieties such as the Seville (a bitter orange used mainly for marmalade), to the Jaffa and the prized Valencia and Washington navel are easy to find and delicious eaten out of hand or in recipes.
For most citrus, the rind offers fragrance and flavor, but use it wisely — the white pith is bitter and should be avoided. Store citrus on the counter at room temperature for 1-2 days only; longer storage requires refrigeration. To get the most juice from your fruit, bring it to room temperature and “knead” it before cutting and juicing.
Lemon Olive Oil Cake
Pastry chef Chrysta Poulos serves this light, delicate cake with chantilly cream, charred lemon curd, and candied lemon peel as garnish on the dessert menu at No. 246 in Decatur. For home bakers, a simple scoop of vanilla ice cream balances the cake’s bright citrus flavor, but it’s just as delicious on its own as a sweet ending to a Valentine’s meal. Poulos uses an Italian meringue buttercream to frost her cake, but Swiss meringue is much easier to make and yields a similarly smooth result. Feel free to use chantilly cream (sweetened whipped cream) to frost the cake as well. Steer clear of heavier frostings: They will overpower the cake’s delicate texture.
Swiss Meringue Buttercream
Of the classic styles of buttercream, Swiss is by far the easiest to make, especially since it yields such smooth results for the effort. For lemon buttercream, substitute for the vanilla lemon zest and extract, indicated below.
Arborio Rice Pudding with Caramelized Cara Cara Oranges
Pastry chef Kathryn King has offered a delightfully executed, seasonal menu at Atlanta’s Aria restaurant for 17 years. Citrus is always a highlight on her dessert menu in winter, and this year she’s been experimenting with Cara Cara oranges, a navel orange that sports a thinner skin than most navels, and a pink-to-reddish flesh with a bit of pepper to its delicious flavor. Here, she uses it with a sumptuously rich rice pudding.
Ricotta Pound Cake with Satsuma Curd
Deliciously moist, yet light in texture, this poundcake is a favorite from pastry chef Zibaa Sammander of Adalina on Northside Parkway in Buckhead. It and the satsuma curd are both easy to make. Satsumas are a type of loose-skinned mandarin orange, perfect for cooking because they are juicier than other mandarins such as tangerines or clementines. Find them at most markets from November through February, but if they prove hard to find, substitute another mandarin.
Meyer Lemon Tartlet
Longtime Bacchanalia pastry chef Carla Tomasko serves this beautiful tartlet on the heralded restaurant’s winter dessert menu. While she uses a seed dough mixture of graham flour, white and black sesame seeds, poppy seeds and flax seeds, it can be easily replaced with a crust of your choice — either a pie dough, graham cracker crumb, or cookie crust. Meyer lemons are fairly easy to find in markets these days — look for large fruits that could almost pass for an orange — their skin is thinner, yellow-orange in color and less porous than that of other lemons, and they yield more juice with a peppery, tart flavor. Garnish this creamy tartlet with the Meyer lemon puree, offered below, or simply with whipped cream if desired.
Assembly: Fill each cooled tartlet shell with the lemon filling. Garnish with lemon puree if desired, or whipped cream.
From Tomasko: “Use the puree to make a design on the plate and garnish the top of the tart with Meyer lemon candy zest, rosemary and thyme leaves, flowers and sea salt.”
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